20 documentaries that all sports fans need to watch (Part One) 5 years ago

20 documentaries that all sports fans need to watch (Part One)

How many of these have you seen?

In an era where its stars are more carefully managed and live more sheltered lives than ever before, some of the coverage surrounding sport on TV can be bland, predictable and formulaic.


Thankfully, those adjectives rarely apply to the genre of sports documentaries, which offer insights into the world of professional sport previously only available to those intimately involved with the chosen topic.

In fact, what inspired us to write this piece in the first place was our excitement about Last Chance U, a documentary coming to Netflix later this month, which, if the trailer is anything to go by, is going to be spectacular.

Clip via Netflix US & Canada

Hundreds of fantastic offerings have been released over the last number of decades and in a tough but worthwhile offering, we’ve decided to try and distil it down to a more manageable list that a dedicated man or woman might get through in a week or so.

Before you spit fire about exclusions from the list below (and those to come in part two), bear in mind that it’s made up of documentaries that have been seen by your humble author and fellow members of the JOE team.

Any and all alternative suggestions are welcome via the usual contact channels at the bottom of the page.


In no particular order then, here are some of our favourites.

Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks

Sport: Basketball

Year released: 2010

Synopsis: Such is the quality of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series you can’t really go wrong with any of them, but this one is a personal favourite.


Documenting the heated rivalry between the New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers during their play-off encounters in the mid-‘90s, Winning Time focuses on the pivotal role played by NBA great Reggie Miller in that rivalry, including a personal spat with celebrity Knicks fan Spike Lee.


Clip via Denise Hope

A Year ‘til Sunday


Sport: Gaelic Football

Year released: 1998

Synopsis: With access so hard to come by these days, the world of the GAA documentary is a sparsely-populated one.

More’s the pity because the few that have emerged have tended to be high on quality, including this account of Galway’s run to the All-Ireland title in 1998.


The makers of the documentary were given access that could only be dreamed of in this day and age and ended up presenting a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of the Tribesmen’s first All-Ireland title since 1966.

Better yet, it’s all on YouTube.

Clip via Foinse Media Productions


Sport: Formula One

Year released: 2010

Synopsis: The crème de la crème of sporting documentaries, it’s hard to think of anything that can rival Asif Kapadia’s account of the late Brazilian Formula One driver, before or since.

Kapadia’s direction was key, but it was Senna’s personality that made this the fascinating, moving and heart-breaking film that it is.

If you somehow haven’t across this yet, do yourself a favour and watch it as soon as possible.


Clip via suhiyamame

The Two Escobars

Sport: Football

Year released: 2010

Synopsis: Another from the esteemed 30 for 30 collection, Jeff and Michael Zimbalist's film explores the connection between the Colombian team of the early 1990s and the most famous drug kingpin in history.

Clip via DocumentaryTrailers

Living with Lions

Sport: Rugby

Year released: 1999

Synopsis: An account of the British and Irish Lions' tour to South Africa in 1997, it was interesting more so for its coverage of what went on behind the scenes than what occurred on the pitch.

Made in the dawn of the professional era, you can see that the habits of amateur touring rugby sides died hard, but what shines through is the camaraderie between players from four different countries, a spirit that is anything but forced.


Clip via Lions Fan

June 17th, 1994

Sport: Multi-sport

Year released: 2010

Synopsis: A day that will be forever remembered for the most infamous police chase in history, as the LAPD and a series of helicopters followed the white Ford Bronco of OJ Simpson on Interstate 405.

The sheer drama of the situation involving Simpson, who was accused of a double homicide, presented the US TV networks with a dilemma on one of the busiest sporting days of that summer.

In the end and in an era where TV audiences had access to far fewer channels than we have today, events such as Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Arnold Palmer’s last round of the US Open and the start of USA ’94 had to take back seat.

Clip via maoritelevision

When We Were Kings

Sport: Boxing

Year released: 1996

Synopsis: The ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali is probably the most famous fight in boxing history and Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning documentary does justice to an event of such magnitude.

When the main subject of your documentary is Ali, you’re already onto a winner, but Gast’s work – which covers the cultural and political implications of fighting in Zaire and the large celebrity element which surrounded the bout – is so much more than a portrayal of the most charismatic sportsman of all time.


Clip via muslimer12

Catching Hell (Baseball)

Sport: Baseball

Year released: 2011

Synopsis: If you think Mayo fans have it tough because of their long and painful wait for an All-Ireland title, consider the predicament of Chicago Cubs supporters.

One of the most famous franchises in baseball, the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908, but came close to ending the drought in 2003.

In Game 6 of a best of seven encounter against the Florida Marlins in the National League Championship series, with the Cubs leading 3-2, supporter Steve Bartman reached for a ball from the crowd and prevented a Cubs outfielder from catching it.

The Cubs went on to lose the game and the series and Bartman became a notorious figure, requiring police protection to keep raging Cubs fans at bay.

Clip via ESPN30for30Videos

The Armstrong Lie

Sport: Cycling

Year released: 2013

Synopsis: There have been numerous accounts of the most high-profile hero to zero story in the modern sporting age and Alex Gibney’s effort is arguably the best of the lot.

Which is quite an achievement considering that Gibney had originally planned to make an uplifting, feel-good piece about Armstrong’s remarkable journey from death’s door to the greatest cyclist in history.

During the making of the documentary, the revelations that destroyed Armstrong came to light, forcing Gibney to completely change tack. He does a pretty good job of it.


Clip via echo horenstein


Sport: Surfing

Year released: 2008

Synopsis: The Endless Summer is often held up as the must-watch surfing documentary, but Waveriders’ Irish connection, as well as the fact that it’s pretty damn good, ensures its place here.

Featuring some of the most famous surfers in Ireland and the world, the documentary explores the life of Irish-Hawaiian (not too many of those around) George Freeth, known as the ‘Father of modern surfing’.

It also works pretty well as an advertisement for surfing in Ireland – described by Kelly Slater as a “cold paradise” – particularly ‘Aileens’ by the Cliffs of Moher, one of the most iconic waves in the world.

Clip via WaveridersTheFilm

Any suggestions to add to the list? Feel free to let us know on Facebook or Twitter, or at editorial@JOE.ie.